Plato and Derrida on Democracy: States of Desire

(x-posted to The Valve)

In a recent post at the Lacanian blog Larval Subjects, the eponymous author (we’ll call him LS) writes:

Is it truly possible, I wonder, to ever desire the difference of the Other, or is this simply impressive sounding talk?

I was reminded of a marvelous paraphrase of The Republic, from Jacques Derrida’s book on democratic states, Rogues:

[In a democracy one finds] all sorts of people, a greater variety than anywhere else. Whence the multicolored beauty of democracy. Plato insists as much on the beauty as on the medley of colors. Democracy seems—and this is its appearing, if not its appearance and its simulacrum—the most beautiful, the most seductive of constitutions. Its beauty resembles that of a multi- and brightly colored garment. The seduction matters here; it provokes; it is provocative in this “milieu” of sexual difference, where roués and voyous roam about. (26)

In his own roundabout fashion, Derrida follows Plato’s example, but inverts him: Derrida will desire the presence of rogues and vagabonds, will insist roguishly on seduction and shiftlessness, and will hint at debaucheries and even at insurrections. All of which confirms, for us, that democracy is, in LS’s apt phrase, a process of desiring the difference of the Other.

I wonder whether it is reasonable to establish a democracy on these grounds; or whether, in fact, democracy is a best understood as a matter of indifference.


In order to understand this question of desire, it is crucial to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary states. If a poor person goes hungry, we assume, and rightly so, that they are involuntarily hungry, and that something should be done to either feed them or teach them to fish. If, on the other hand, a person is fasting, we assume that they are acting of their own free will, and do not try to compel them to eat.

The question of what is voluntary, and what is not, is a question about free will, and the limits of free will. (For example, we routinely treat the mentally disabled, and the very young, as though they did not possess free will, and this seems to be justified.) I cannot hope to answer that question here, and in fact do not need to do so.

Instead, let’s focus on that enormous field of thoughts, actions, and subjectivities which are assumed to be free. It is ridiculous to expect us to desire what Derrida calls the milieu of difference. The phrase calls up, as Derrida himself notes, a “bazaar” (26) in which other human beings serve as consumer goods, as spectacles for our entertainment.

However, in order for another person to become visible to us, thus catalyzing our desire, they must be comprehensible in some way. We become an audience for them, and audiences get very upset when difference is threatened by self-difference; that is, when a celebrity, ethnic group, friend, or lover acts in a fashion inconsistent with our expectations. Even when we expect someone to be different from ourselves, as most celebrities are different, we don’t like it when they change. Hence the outpouring of basically aggressive “concern” for Britney Spears when she had her highly publicized breakdowns, and the imperialisms of representation that characterize what Edward Said called “Orientalism.”

Furthermore, it is foolish and intellectually dishonest to enter into conversations hampered by some arbitrary marker of irreducible difference. People with strong beliefs, be they religious, philosophical, aesthetic, or political, have an interest in promoting their beliefs, and this is as it should be. There’s no good reason to expect a devout Christian to want somebody else to remain a Buddhist in the same way that he or she wants to be saved, and wants to save others. Even environments that seem most pluralistic, such as classroom discussions about the meaning of a text, are underwritten by an extensive and mutual set of rules — usually, in this case, about what kind of supporting evidence is required to justify a reading. Difference seems to constantly transcend itself towards identity: group identity, family bonds, even personal identity. Every promise and every acceptance of duty determinately negates difference.

Thus one discovers, at the heart of the democratic principle, not the spectacle of seductive differences, but rather the matter of indifference, as the phrase is used in everyday conversation. It does not mean insensibility, or a lack of interest in what other people volunteer. It is simply a limit placed on what concerns me. I cease expecting others to be fully transparent to me, and I cease to expect them to create environments in which my beliefs predominate. This is the essence of the right to privacy, of toleration, and of the fair exercise of authority.